Unsound technicians


Written by: Richard Letts

Join me in a ramble through two musical worlds.

Australian pianist, Amir Farid, now a staff accompanist for the Juilliard School in New York, gave a piano master class online for Musica Viva. The master class pianists were accompanying some fine singers.

Some of the music was very subtle and Farid had some curious ways of coaching the pianists to extract meaning from their accompaniments. In one instance, in a Debussy song he sought to paint one fleeting emotional colour by having the pianist strike then stroke the piano keys before releasing them. 

To suggest such a technique to, say, a violinist makes more obvious sense. The violinist is bowing a string, not just hitting it. It can be stretched and vibrated by a bow that moves at varying speeds and pressures and directions, all under the control of the player. On the other hand, the pianist hits a lever then releases it and it’s all over, rover. What result can you get from stroking it?! But it somehow worked because the musical result was very tangible and clear.

So the sound was made, and heard. A larger point was that the sound and the meaning were possible in this music. It’s a sort of miracle, sought by the musician and then by the audience!

Amir Farid. Photo Credit-Jasmine Moseley

What is that world? A piece of classical music is captured on paper and sits unchanged for, potentially, many thousands of musicians to explore and find a myriad of fine differences in performance. Amir knew very exactly a particular sound that he was seeking and wanted the audience to hear. The notes stay the same but the music stays fresh through the thousands of such interpretations.

If they can be heard by the audience.

Classical songs are of course performed ‘acoustically’ and the sound the musician produces in the concert space is the sound that is heard directly by the audience, subject to the acoustic effects of  the room. A lot of thought and planning goes into the acoustic design of many of these rooms or halls with the objective, to put it simply, of enabling the listener to hear as exactly as possible the sound that the performer intends and hears.

But what if there is electronic intervention? I was listening to the sounds of the master class as captured by a couple of microphones, transmitted to me online and reproduced by my computer. The artists and producers have control over what what sounds are captured in the studio but could be distressed with the sound that emerges from the speakers in my study.

Segué. Last night, I went to a jazz concert in a club and there also, the sound that reached me much of the time from the venue’s speakers about 20 metres away (not 6 kilometres) was a bad joke. It wasn’t nearly the sound the musicians made. What happened to it on the way?

Used to be that jazz performances were for the most part acoustic. Now that is not usual. They are amplified. The amplification equipment can be sophisticated and powerful. But in Sydney, the operators often seem to have little idea what they are doing. This technician wouldn’t have had a clue how to give Amir what he wanted or even, I’m guessing, be able to hear it. He also wasn’t too flash with these jazz musicians.

The problem last night was similar, if less severe than at the wonderful jazz festival a few weeks earlier at the Sydney Conservatorium. There, the headline concerts took place in the 500-seat, acoustically good if not wonderful Verbrugghen Hall. They were amplified. The Verbrugghen grand piano can be heard over the top of a symphony orchestra without amplification. So amplification for this jazz concert was possibly an aesthetic choice rather than an acoustic necessity. But to what end?

I remember once in New York attending a production of an Ibsen play and it was amplified. Actors train in voice production so that they can perform without amplification and be heard in large theatres. The unamplified tradition still prevails. But I realised that in this case, amplification allowed the actors to speak very softly, even whisper, and express an emotional range that was not available to them without amplification.

This could have been the purpose of amplifying these jazz musicians but on the face of it, was not. The result became a soundtrack for World War 3.

Linda May Han Oh (above) performing in the Verbrugghen Hall at the Con festival on May 30: performances by her quartet and Fabian Almazan’s group Rhizome were undermined by poor sound…PHOTO CREDIT ANTHONY BROWELL

One of the star performers was the famous Australian (now US-based) bass player, Linda May Han Oh. She was very fleet of finger but her bass was heard as a loud, indistinct, booming pond of sound that blurred and absorbed much of the music from the rest of the band. She had brought with her a brilliant pianist, Fabian Almazan. His own band also performed and was drawn into the same over-amplified morass; it included, for heaven’s sake, a string quartet – you could see them. After 15 minutes, I decided I couldn’t stand it and left.

I was not the only one to be disappointed. Herald jazz critic John Shand commented on the amplification in his review: “…Oh’s double bass was initially indecipherable in the mix for her quartet, undermining the whole point.” (A discussion generated online by Eric Myers also discovered some unhappy listeners although, to be fair, a couple seemed content. Eric proposed a solution: lay carpet on the stage. That likely could make a big difference but could not be guaranteed to remedy various technical incompetencies.)

John Shand. His SMH review was headed ‘Musical magic mired in poor acoustics.’

But what was Linda May’s view? Was this the sound she was seeking or was she just somehow stuck with it.

As it happens, in this edition of Loudmouth there is an article that includes a recording of Linda May, with a band that includes the same pianist (her husband). (Go to “Women in jazz still face many barriers to success.” You will find the YouTube.)

The recording is made in a studio and presumably Linda May knew the sound she wanted to achieve and was able to get it. It was nothing at all like the sound at the concert.

There was a similar problem at the relatively small jazz club last night. One of the bands was a piano trio and the lower register of the very fine double bass performance was a puddle of mud, worse at some times than others. It is quite possible that this bass player was performing with subtlety a jazz equivalent to that pursued by Amir Farid in the Debussy song. But it would not have been heard.

The other band on the program was an octet and it came across much more clearly. But when I stood at the side of the band, the sound was altogether different – and way better – than it was at the back of the room. The musicians were not hearing what the audience hears nor vice versa.

And they have to rely on the guy in charge of the amplification, the sound technician, to get a good result.

I speculate that most sound technicians favour pop music and have most experience in working with rock music and metal and such high volume genres. It is music in which I have minimal competence and I don’t know the intricacies of that task but am guessing that they don’t fit the needs of Amir Farid or the jazz groups I have discussed.

If I had a jazz group I would try to take my own sound technician to gigs – someone who knows the music, and my version of it, and knows how to put the amplification system to its service.

And could whoever runs courses for sound technicians realise that beyond circuits, currents and capacitors, they need to be given a deep understanding of the music that they are there to enhance?



  1. Interesting and insightful. I’ve been thinking for a while of digging into (researching is not really the word) the impact of amplification has had on music performance. Frank Sinatra and the crooners were made possible by amplification. His voice would not have carried far in the club without it. And Sinatra shouting is a horrible thought.
    Amplification has become pretty standard in musical theatre, perhaps because casts often do 2 performances a day or perhaps just because they are not trained to produce sounds to reach the back of the theatre.
    Amplification is rarely used in classical music and I wonder if, skilfully and creatively employed, it could give us new and interesting effects.
    One of the few groups I know that always performs with microphones is Roomful of Teeth the members of which produce sounds that would not work otherwise,
    Your point, that amplification must be done by people who know their trade, is certainly correct,

    • Amplification is being used in classical music in major venues where the natural acoustic is in some way inadequate. Some years ago it was installed in the Adelaide Festival Centre Theatre, one of those venues that are designed as multi-purpose and so are bound to have problems in serving some part of the multi-. The orchestra pit in the opera theatre at Sydney Opera House was notoriously flawed but the problems were solved a few years ago through very skilful amplification. The thing is, the success lay in delivering what would be heard as the natural ‘acoustic’ sound of an orchestra in a venue in which the acoustic architecture was effective. In rock music, amplification is intrinsic to the sound. In classical music, for the most part amplification is used to achieve an apparently unamplified natural sound that is better than is produced by the venue unaided. Of course, that may not be so for all time. I remember some time ago Richard Tognetti saying something to the effect that because amplification of music had become so ubiquitous, we might expect that in due course classical music performances would routinely be amplified.

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